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The Future of Cocktail Culture with Antonio Lai

Our world is changing at a rapid pace – what does the future hold for cocktail culture?

Meet Antonio Lai, internationally acclaimed mixologist. As co-founder of Tastings Group, he’s been transforming the local cocktail scene through his bars and restaurants, such as Quinary, VEA Restaurant & Lounge, Room 309, and his latest venture Draft Land HK. With more than 23 years’ experience in the industry, it’s safe to say that he’s the best person to talk to us about upcoming cocktail trends and all things drinks related.

Hi Antonio! You’ve created so many iconic drinks over the years. What keeps you going in this industry?

AL: My passion for mixology, of course. But what I enjoy even more is chatting with people. I’d say the social aspect of cocktail drinking, of going to the bar, is often more important than the drinks themselves. For me, mixology is the bridge that connects me with my guests – I just love meeting different kinds of people while making good drinks for them.

I’m also motivated to push boundaries, from creating drink recipes to the bar ambience, to the overall customer experience. Every bar serves Long Island Iced Tea; why would people come to mine if my Long Island Iced Tea was exactly the same? This is what I often ask myself, and also why I keep experimenting with new ideas.
“It matters not what you’re drinking, as long as you’re in good company.”

And where do you get these ideas from?

It’s a never-ending learning process – I spend at least half an hour every day to read about all things mixology-related, from trends to recipes to new technology, because knowledge is the foundation of creativity. Then you need the courage to do something that no one else has done before. For me, that was opening our cocktail bar Quinary eight years ago, which was the first of its kind in Hong Kong then. How things have changed since…!

Tell us more about that – how has Hong Kong’s cocktail scene evolved?

AL: It’s changed so much. A decade ago, the idea of opening a cocktail-focused bar was novel – almost risky – but today we have so many successful craft cocktail bars: COA, The Wise King, Otto e Mezzo, etc. Nowadays, we’re called “mixologists” and not just bartenders. It shows how our profession and our field have been gaining recognition and respect. I’m also proud to see that bars like The Old Man, originally a tiny hangout in Central, are now exporting our cocktail culture to other countries.

In terms of what’s expected from a bar, it’s become a minimum requirement to offer a unique experience, and it’s not just about beverages. This could mean an exclusive menu or new ways of serving drinks. For us, this meant drinks that provide a multisensory experience and a new cocktail pairing concept to satisfy our increasingly savvy guests. For those who want their drinks fast, straightforward and consistent, we offer cocktails-on-tap in a casual environment, which has been popular with both connoisseurs and newbies.

Do you think beverages with local elements are in our future, then?

AL: Definitely. Many mixologists have already been incorporating local ingredients into their recipes, which I think is very important in giving your creations identity. Recently, we’ve collaborated with Two Moons Distillery to create a five herbs tea-flavoured gin – something that resonates with Hong Kongers while showcasing our heritage. We’ll surely see more localised drinks around the world, as people seek authentic experiences that give a sense of place, whether they’re at home or travelling.

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What other cocktail trends can we expect in 2021?

AL: This year has been tough for bars and restaurants, but they’ve also been reaching guests in safe, innovative ways. There’s been a surge of online delivery services for cocktails as well as virtual tasting workshops, where they deliver the drinks to you ahead of the online sessions. I think these will continue even when we no longer have to keep physical distance – they simply provide more flexibility, especially for those who don’t have time to pop by a bar but still want a sip.

Bottled and canned cocktails will go mainstream as well. They’re already quite popular in the US, but there aren’t many carbonated canned cocktails made in Hong Kong. This is changing, though, partly because we haven’t been able to go out much this year, and canned beverages offer a convenient solution. They also have a longer shelf life, a medium price range, and options for different needs and preferences (such as low-ABV or non-alcoholic) – all of which tell me that canned cocktails are here to stay.

All in all, what is a good drink to you?

AL: It doesn’t have to be strong. In fact, I’m happy to see the dry cocktail (or mocktail) trend grow in recent years. It gives people who don’t want to, or can’t consume alcohol due to medical reasons, options to still enjoy the experience. So, for me, a good drink is one that tastes good – whether it’s alcoholic or not, and whether it comes in a bottle, a can or a glass, are secondary. At the end of the day, it matters not so much what you’re drinking, as long as you’re in good company.

Follow Antonio on Instagram @mmcocktail for more.

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